Pathologies of MIT

Aaron Swartz 1986-2013 Internet Activist

MIT hosted the Leary-Lettvin debate of 1967. This debate pitted the LSD guru, Timothy Leary, against MIT professor Jerome Lettvin. Lettvin argued to a Kresge audience that government outlawing of some drugs, such as marijuana, was ludicrous. However, he also said that he could not “in good conscious advise people to break the law of the land.” He soon follows with the opinion that LSD is quite different than other drugs. Leary’s proactive endorsement of LSD, according to Lettvin, made Leary “a tool of the Devil.”

Why did Lettvin use such strong language? Well, one of the reasons was increasing rates of suicide at MIT. Into the 1990s, several suicides at MIT were linked to LSD use. Between 1964 and 2000, rates of MIT suicide were twice that of the national average. Most of these suicide victims were men. They juxtaposed an institutional environment where MIT students purchase shirts from the campus bookstore that say “IHTFP” (“I HATE THIS F***ING PLACE”…among many other interpretations). There is debate as to what this hate truly entails. MIT Admissions hosts a blog (link) where a former student talks about the meaning of IHTFP. She concludes that whereas you might love MIT, you will eventually hate it. Down below, in response to her post, students who are awaiting admission to MIT write very candidly that they will choose to suffer. One student writes: “I will give five years of my life…to get in”

Most outsiders would say, “But how do MIT student’s survive?” Well, athletics has helped many. Keeping your body busy is always helpful. Otherwise, fraternity life protects some students to some extent. During orientation in 1999, fraternities covered a large lawn at MIT and made incoming “frosh”(freshmen) feel like MIT was a home away from home. Still, in other cases, MIT students use drugs, alcohol, sex and many other tools to achieve equilibrium.

In 1999, when I arrived at MIT, it was a strange place. The campus marijuana dealer was a 20 year old white girl who rode her bicycle from her East Campus dormitory, across the Charles River, to fraternities on Beacon Street in Boston. She was a product of a period, just two years earlier, when MIT students praised themselves for being the biggest partiers in the nation. At that time, in 1997, an MIT student, Scott Krueger, drowned in his own vomit as part of fraternity hazing.

MIT fraternity life had been quasi-celebrated as an anecdote against the trials and tribulations of MIT academics. “Frat brothers,” as they called themselves, argued that they knew how to “work hard and play hard.” One MIT fraternity had a “balanced man” competition. They awarded men outside the fraternity for being the epitome of mental and physical health.

Outside of fraternities, MIT was described as a no-man’s land. That was one of the selling points of the MIT fraternities: tell incoming students how lame it was to be alone in campus housing. During the fall of 1999, a student suffocated himself on MIT’s East Campus in campus housing. Family members back in North Carolina sent me news articles. Like Kreuger, his death had made national news.

In the last 6 months, more MIT suicides have made national headlines. A recent article by the Boston Globe stated that the apparent suicide of Matthew Nehring was the third MIT student suicide during the 2014-15 academic year. These suicides are in addition to the suicides of a graduate student and professor during this academic year. The Boston Globe suggests: “MIT is known to have one of the nation’s most comprehensive counseling programs.” The Globe states in another article that MIT has made some improvements to its counseling in recent decades.

Suffice it to say, MIT has been sued many times in relation to suicides on its campus and within its student body. Its retort? Improving mental health.

In the late 1990s, MIT HEALTH (the larger healthcare enterprise for the MIT community) was known as a place where you didn’t want to go. It was, quite literally, a place where students who needed treatment were made worse. It was rumored that students died there and that MIT had been sued because of its treatment of students. One of MIT HEALTH’s most important functions, it seemed, was to psychiatrically treat students. Many MIT students were prescribed lithium and Prozac. These students were often stuck between their status as MIT students (which included pressure from family/friends to accept the rigors of MIT life) and the refining fire of an MIT education.

I did a bit of digging and I found a paper on the website of the OpenCourseWare publication of MIT. The title is “Beavers and Prozac: Antidepressants at MIT.” It seems to be an undergraduate paper, but it is rife with truth. It shows an MIT HEALTH that not only saw large numbers of patients, but pressed MIT students to take Prozac and similar drugs. It shows an MIT HEALTH that might have bullied MIT students into particular types of treatment.

In reading “Beavers and Prozac,” I quickly remembered an article from MIT’s newspaper in the 1990s that discusses how researchers at MIT helped patent particular uses of Prozac in particular patient populations. There was no way that MIT HEALTH would push Prozac on its students in relationship to this research and these patents. Right?

Suicides, like other types of death, tell us a lot about the decay and disease that haunts humanity. However, we shouldn’t act like we intuitively understand this decay and disease. Recent MIT suicides come just a couple years after the apparent suicide of Aaron Swartz who was being prosecuted at the behest of MIT for crimes related to breaking-and-entering and cyber theft. At his son’s funeral, Adam’s father made it clear that he thought the U.S. Government was in on his son’s “suicide.” If so, what part did MIT play?

If you look back at the stories of MIT suicides, many seem questionable. In this questionability, we have the root of a quite phenomenal conversation about the relationships between human life and intellectual pursuit. The intersection is volatile. A former MIT student posted a video on YouTube that informs listeners – many of whom are probably MIT students – to seek help through a relationship with Christ.

So, shall we now call for a pathology report of MIT? Not an assessment of dead bodies. Not an analysis of diversity. But an examination of why the MIT community endures suicide and other mysterious deaths at such high rates. I think it is important, despite how much we (former students) respect what MIT is as an academic institution. Yes, an analysis of MIT’s pathogenesis – the creation of disease, sickness, and death at MIT – would be valuable as we attempt to understand why typically brilliant humans die before their time.

The Vaccine Question: Part II


This is the follow-up to The Vaccine Question: Part I

In the 1940s, the Cold War was warming up. The U.S. military hijacked the Bikini Atoll Island for nuclear tests that severely harmed the indigenous people of Bikini. By the Johnson administration in the 1960s, the U.S. was dousing Vietnam with Agent Orange and, back at home, enlisting children into the Medicaid system and its schedule of vaccinations.  The disenfranchised – Black and Brown families, for the most part – were asked to be eager recipients of their roles as patients and soldiers.

I remember when my uncle, a veteran of the Vietnam War, began reacting to his exposure to Agent Orange. It took about 17 years, but Agent Orange eventually demolished his nervous system. The Department of Veteran’s effectively denied the role of Agent Orange in various types of neurological disorder until 2013.

Several government “contractors,” including Monsanto, manufactured Agent Orange. This was part of the US military’s herbicidal warfare against the North Vietnam community. Monsanto, as it so happens, is front and center in the creation and proliferation of genetically modified seeds (GMOs). Today, some researchers link Monsanto’s GMOs and herbicides to increased rates of cancer (link 1; link 2). Fear of Monsanto and similar organizations has created a particularly strong dichotomy within U.S. society: “anti-GMO” activists and vaccine-questioners on one side vs. groups that are “pro-science” and who demand “genetic literacy” on the other side.

But, cui bono? (who benefits?)  Debates between these two sides tend to disallow an answer.

I noticed the title photograph (see above) in front of a Walgreen’s last year. It intrigued me. A racially ambiguous American girl (propped in front of a map of the world…something that characterizes the American classroom) shares a Band-Aid with a Black girl (propped in front of wind-tossed grass…probably somewhere in Haiti or on the African continent).

The thought of sharing a Band-Aid causes me great disgust. However, as a consumer, I’m supposed to disregard my disgust and embrace this symbology of the shared Band-Aid. The Band-Aid is supposed to be symbolic of global connections and new types of responsibilities to share vaccines.

When we talk about vaccines, we often don’t think about HIV/AIDS, However, fear of HIV/AIDS helped bolster fears and promises of vaccines in the late 1980s and 1990s.

In 1992, Rolling stone published an article that connected polio vaccinations (OPV) with HIV epidemics (link to discussion). Eventually, consensus developed around the roots of HIV/AIDS in Africa. The Aids Institute articulates an origin story that includes people hunting chimpanzees and becoming infected with HIV (or SIV) through contact with chimpanzee blood.

The mystery and darkness of disease and infection go hand-in-hand with other aspects of mystery and darkness. This includes race, as we can see in the recent proliferation of Ebola debate.

In 1991, NBA star Earvin “Magic” Johnson publicized that he was diagnosed with HIV. In the wake of White, Black, Latino, and Native American AIDS/HIV deaths, Johnson’s identity as a Black professional athlete, who quite successfully overcame HIV, placed HIV/AIDS (and it’s treatment) in the limelight. AIDS was killing thousands. Certain theories argued that Johnson received special treatments that ‘regular’ folks could not obtain. HIV/AIDS needed a miracle.

HIV/AIDS vaccines seemed to be that hope. By December of 1991, a substantial national search for HIV/AIDS vaccines was underway (link). At the same time, scholars began to discuss what it meant to address AIDS within the contexts of Africa (link).

Whoever created and controlled the vaccine was destined to be quite influential. The promise of the HIV/AIDS vaccine would cross national and racial barriers. In the aftermath of Ronald Reagan’s appeals for Gorbachev to “tear down” the walls of the Cold War, the wranglers of medical science could, with the help of the AIDS vaccine, author a sense of  common humanity by placing vaccines in the hands of humanitarian-minded peoples.

In 2008, Doctors Without Borders published an article (headlined with a photo of Black children standing in line) that begins:

Over the last few years, new vaccines to fight an increased range of childhood diseases have come to market. These new products come at a time when there is a renewed focus and international commitment to ensure that children in developing countries are also able to benefit from full protection against childhood killer diseases.

Six year later, as a customer of Walgreens, I am told that I share something with the isolated girl in Africa who, according to the picture above, grows up in grass and weeds. If we share anything, we supposedly share the hope found in the vaccine.

Vaccine pragmatism was born within the history of American public health. In the emergence of American public health, receipt of vaccines illustrated a transformation of the vaccine recipient into a new type of citizenship.

Indeed, if individuals didn’t participate in the act of vaccination, they were questioned about why they didn’t care for others. “Not only do you suffer,” a public health nurse told us at a “health day” at our middle school around 1993 when she was explaining why we should vaccinate. “You don’t care enough about the rest of us.”

A logic exists that makes anyone who resists vaccines a non-believer in vaccines and, ultimately, a non-believer in science. These “anti-science” people, it is suggested, jeopardize the world through their inability to accept the good that science does (link to a very interesting article by a pediatrician that has this tone of scientific authority). But many people who buck or disregard consensus within medical science communities often attempt to validate their human senses of awareness, especially as these senses contradict narratives from corporations, governments, and other powerful communities. (Here is a great video that brings together some interesting voices from the science community.)

In those contexts, the current ‘anti-vaxx vs. pro-vaxx’ debate becomes, in reality, a debate between the power of consensus and, on the other side, the observations and senses of people in their everyday worlds. Consensus can’t extinguish the senses of people in the early 21st century especially when contemporary human perception is facilitated by rapid and quite explicit forms of communication.

For example, parents who observe the timing of vaccines and onset of certain diseases like Autism use blogs to share stories to audiences of thousands or, perhaps, millions. Twitter is ablaze with links to videos and photographs that describe genetic science gone wrong in livestock and other biological beings. A conservative blogger states directly that:

It’s doubtful that measles cases skyrocketed last year, increasingly threefold, because of Jenny McCarthy. There was a little thing called amnesty which brought with it a border rush and plenty of other diseases.

Jenny McCarthy is a former porn-star who, according to many folks, stirs up fear and panic within the conservative/Right community in the United States through her various media appearances. However, her image as a morally questionable person (because she was a porn-star) doesn’t seem to overshadow the power of her identity as the mouthpiece for a quite large community of people in the United States who want to expose ambiguity within the economy of vaccines in the United States and globally through their personal and vicarious experiences.

During the Slavery Question, the encroachment of the federal government (as articulated by peoples in the Confederacy) helped deflect conversations away from the major American problem: the enslavement and torture of mostly Black peoples. Similarly, in the Vaccine Question, the promoters of vaccination make vaccine questioners out to be unpatriotic, unsympathetic, and “tin foil hat” wearing crazies who, at the end of the day, encroach on the importance of vaccines. These promoters ignore those who ask questions about the relationships of vaccines to human rights and medical ethics (aspects of American society that most people would say they are at least mildly concerned with).

I’m reminded in this moment of Bill Gates’ 2010 Ted Talk titled “Innovating to zero” (link). In this talk, he suggests that GreenHouse gases – carbon dioxide, to be exact – are the basis of a new ecological arithmetic. To reduce GreenHouse gases, he suggests, four factors have to be brought nearer to zero: “population,” “services,” “energy,” and “carbon dioxide per unit of energy.”

In the course of his talk, Gates slips in a quite confusing line of thought:

First we’ve got population…that’s headed up to about 9 billion…if we do a really great job on new vaccines, healthcare, reproductive services….we can lower that perhaps by 10 or 15 percent.

These words came in the midst of efforts by Gate’s Foundation to provide massive numbers of vaccines to children across the world. Interestingly, the vaccines that Gates’ Foundation distributed most widely included polio vaccine and HPV vaccine (the vaccine that, according to the billboard outside of Chicago, “is cancer prevention”… read part 1 of this post for more details).

Like in Chicago, common people who receive HPV in India describe how the HPV vaccine has destroyed the bodies of young girls (link).

So where do we go from here? This conversation ultimately spins into a discussion of how we “speak truth to power,” to follow the old Quaker saying. What do we do to separate ourselves from consensus-driving programs or hegemonies that don’t allow humans in the United States (and the world, for that matter) the freedom to take ownership of their vulnerabilities?

Vaccines remain the only communion substance (like the wafer given to a Catholic parishioner) that is truly shared between peoples across the world in the early 21st century.

In the next part, I will discuss the ramifications of this new type of communion.

The Vaccine Question: Part I

IMG_0610 In 2013, MIT News announced the development of a technology that may eventually make it obsolete to obtain vaccinations through injections. The new vaccination method is similar to a bandage that sits on top of the skin. MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) is home to rigorous undergraduate and graduate communities that pride themselves on advancement via intellectual and physical labor. (MIT’s slogan is “Mind and Hand.”) The Institute began in the 1850s when William Rogers, a professor in Virginia, chose to begin his polytechnic university (the future MIT) in a non-Southern part of the United States so that conditions of slavery and pre-Civil War tension weren’t witnessed everyday. By 1859, Rogers submitted paperwork to the state of Massachusetts to build the first buildings of what eventually became MIT. But MIT labor always existed in the shadow of slave labor and the predicaments of human torture. The beginning of MIT coincided with the emergence of the “Slavery Question” debate in the United States. The Slavery Question wasn’t just about whether or not slaves should be freed from their bondage in the U.S. South. The Slavery Question was a debate about religion in the United States. The Slavery Question was a debate about financial power within the United States. The Slavery Question was a debate about the intervention of the Federal Government in the lives of Americans (including slaveholders). The Slavery Question was a debate about how human dignity is defended. In the early 20th century, after the Civil War and the Slavery Question, MIT became a resource for the powerbrokers who controlled the nation. Much of what MIT created was questionably used to help enforce regimes of terror against peoples and communities around the world.  MIT helped develop the U.S. Navy of the early 20th century. MIT was a major hub for nuclear physics in the era between 1950 and 1985 (the “Cold War” era). MIT, in the late 20th century, was a hub for developments in computer science that are the foundation for CIA and NSA policing throughout the world today. MIT has not acknowledged its proximity to various types of terrorism. Indeed, MIT remains silent within contemporary slavery questions. One of these 21st Century slavery questions is something that I’ve titled “The Vaccine Question.” I’m not the first one in the anthropology blogosphere to talk about this national vaccine debacle. A fellow anthropologist over at Anthropology In Practice described the fear of vaccines back in 2009 during the H1N1 scare. But over the last few months, vaccinations have become a hot topic within the news media in the United States. NHL players such as Bubba Crosby have been diagnosed with mumps. At Disneyland, a recent epidemic of measles has caused panic in child-centered communities such as pediatric offices and nurseries. One of my “connections” on a social media network is a physician who posted a message that derided parents for not vaccinating their children. Yet, there are many people within the United States and North America who are growing more and more fearful of vaccines and what we don’t know about them. While physicians and public health officials count on MIT and other organizations to help make vaccination and other biotechnological treatments easier, parents and emerging social groups related to anti-vaccine advocacy believe that contemporary biomedical conditions in children are reasons for us to reconsider the innocence of vaccines and similar biotechnologies. There are many vaccines with many possible negative side effects. In Chicago, a billboard along the interstate reads “HPV vaccine is cancer prevention” (see photograph above). It provides a 311 phone number that links the caller to a Chicago based non-emergency call center where callers can receive information about the HPV vaccine. I recently overheard a group of young females who discussed the role of HPV vaccine in their everyday lives. They discussed how some of their friends were sterile because of the HPV vaccine. These types of stories are part of an emerging anti-vaccine consciousness in the United States. The history of vaccination in the United States is blended with a long history of eugenics projects that often targeted certain subaltern/undesirable peoples in the United States. American eugenics was born within very established, highly praised universities and medical schools that utilized the protection of federalized eugenics projects to connect vulnerable Americans with treatments that would ultimately take away fertility and other human capabilities. Some anti-vaccine advocates are descendants of Black and Native American peoples who were targeted by eugenics. Other anti-vaccine advocates are witnesses of a recent epidemic of Autism, which is a disease that many people believe is connected to the use of childhood vaccines such as the MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine. Some anti-vaccine advocates are “conspiracy theorists” who argue that the Federal Government and pharmaceutical companies are in cahoots and know that vaccines damage the human body. When I lived in Washington DC, many of the pharmacists I worked with in pharmacy (I was a pharmacy technician) were employees of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They described how doctors and pharmacists who worked with the FDA wouldn’t allow their children to receive vaccines. The Vaccine Question, like the Slavery Question 150 years ago, opens up a dialogue about the coexistence of consensus and vulnerability within American society. In “Part II,” I will continue this discussion.

Made Men and American Skin

american skin

“We will take this ride…across this bloody river…to the other side”

– American Skin, Bruce Springsteen

In the United States we are living within a very interesting system of evaluation of the human body where we are always witnessing the intersection of violence and the creation/recreation of identity at the level of the skin. In slavery, it was the pubic display of whipping marks and severed penises placed in the mouths of individuals who were lynched and hanged. In the prison industrial complex, the skin becomes a site for a new text that opposes and parallels the experiences of people who are imprisoned. This has transferred over into music and entertainment where rappers and basketball players – among many other people – are “tatted.” In the early 2000s, then commissioner David Stern ostracized NBA players (who were overwhelmingly Black) for their “ill-fitted” and “hip hop” style of dress. Dwayne Wade, a championship player who is Black, stated in an article that he credited David Stern for his improved dress.

My research over the last few years has focused on different aspects of healing. Within my emerging interest in healing, I have been concerned with how healing and violence intersect. Without fail, when you begin to discuss healing with Americans, their stories about why they need healing or why they choose to heal are related to some form of violence (that has happened or might happen). Meanwhile, the process of becoming healers may be wrapped in the acceptance of violence enacted upon themselves and others. In the case of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, the epidemic of police violence against Black boys/men has helped reaffirm an impetus to help fix/heal/restore particular aspects of presentation in the United States so that injustices like Michael Brown’s murder do not continue to happen. (Recently, actor Wendell Pierce discussed how he prepares for a policeman to stop him so that he isn’t shot while being Black.)

Indeed, the death of Michael Brown and Eric Garner (and protests following acquittals of police responsible for their deaths) are parts of a LONG history of fire hoses, police dogs, whips, and other weapons aimed at non-White peoples in the United States. It has happened since the 1600s. Historically, violence against Black bodies occurred in “the streets” or in other public spaces (as opposed to much of the violence against Native Americans that took place in private boarding schools). Many historians describe 19th century slavery as it occurred within the gaze of White, Black, and Native American onlookers (Here is a link from the annals of UNC of Southern documents that illustrates the day to day life of plantation observation.)

But how do we articulate the vulnerability of the Black body despite where it is today?

A couple of days ago, Alpha Phi Alpha, a century old Black fraternity, celebrated its founder’s day. I’ve known men who pledged with this Black Greek organization. A couple of them – people I know well – suffered physical pain and humiliation at the hands of the fraternity. They were beaten with paddles. Some of their colleagues were branded with symbols of their loyalty to the fraternal organization. At the end of these initiation processes, they “crossed the burning sands” where humiliation and violence (among other rites of passage) culminated in their births into new “brotherhoods.”

Talk of personal suffering in these initiation practices is largely silenced. These men have been “made,” which is a status defined by the fact that a fraternity or sorority pledge (one who is attempting to join the fraternal organization) has made it through the process of initiation. Black Greek organizations are pervasively violent, as suggested by many stories of violent rituals on American college campuses (Link #1, Link #2Link #3).

Black fraternities aren’t alone in their violent practices. Fraternity hazing experiences define American youth culture across racial lines. I remember stories from a good friend at MIT – who was Korean American – about his biological brother at Dartmouth who was asked to prove his loyalty to the fraternity by allowing a fraternity “brother” to tie a brick to his testicles and drop the brick from a bridge. (A recent article from the Atlantic discusses these issues from the context of White fraternity life.)

Hank Nuwer, an officianado of “all things hazing,” documents myriad episodes of hazing throughout the United States. Most of these hazing rituals, his website suggests, take place in the middle of fraternity initiation where, for whatever reason, individuals are forced to endure something (some form of liquid poured into their mouth, beating with some device, public embarrassment, harassment of their genitalia, etc.). These hazing methodologies are often reminiscent of tactics used by the CIA to torture “terrorists.” White/Euro-American fraternity hazing first rose to prominence in the late 1800s, directly after the U.S. Civil War. According to Nuer, there was never a time when hazing was “legal” or “condoned.” According to his website, hazing is “nearly always against the rules.”

Indeed, what Nuwer’s research points to is the use of hazing in American college life as a preliminary step in more “adult” power broking in American society. In my writing about the cultures of healthcare (in an upcoming book) I discuss how transitions into power within healthcare hinge upon one’s acceptance of psycho-social violence against them in their training. Although, at times, physical violence defines hospital life. A lot of this power play, I suspect, begins within the backgrounds (college and otherwise) of the leaders within different fields in medicine.

Nevertheless, Nuer’s website is very interesting in its scope. According to his records, Black fraternities weren’t caught hazing – e.g. there weren’t incidents of hazing that turned into something “reportable” to authorities – until well after the Civil Rights movement. The first report involving a Black Fraternity, according to Nuer’s website, was at University of Virginia in 1992. (Although, I’ve heard of deaths of Black Greek pledges in the 1970s.) The person who died at UVA, Gregory Batipps, died while driving. His father, a physician, argued that he died because of exhaustion caused by hazing.

In the last 20 years, Black Greek hazing seems to have gotten worse. At each instance of hazing, Black Greek organizations and host universities come out and state, quite emphatically, that hazing is immoral and illegal. However, just below the surface, hazing remains critical in Black Greek life (although folks from the Black Greek world have argued that this shouldn’t be the case).

We must attempt to understand what this fairly contemporary emergence of Black hazing means within the broader landscape of violence against Black peoples in the United States. One might suggest that Black hazing is “kids being kids” in a college environment where Black folks can finally be “normal.” If this is the case, I might make an argument that, in a post-Civil Rights era, Black families and communities continue to adopt White/Euro-American frameworks of “crossing over” into their cultural spaces.

To begin to have this conversation, we must discuss the genealogy of Black Greek life. Let’s use Alpha Phi Alpha for example. Alpha Phi Alpha parades its “7 Jewels” around as the apostles of its brotherhood. The “7 Jewels” were 7 men who, according to Alpha Phi Alpha advertisements, founded the fraternity at Cornell University in 1906. When I was a student at MIT, university parties hosted by Black and Latino students would often include men who pledged Alpha Phi Alpha during their tenure at colleges in Boston. They would often shout “O…6” as a form of reverence for their founding as a study group at Cornell University in 1906.

This beginning must be critically examined. In 1906, the “7 jewels” were connected to organizations like “Jack and Jills” and variations of the Freemasons and Eastern Stars. This Black bourgeoisie (as I call it) first took root in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. The first “Black U.S. Senator” was a man named Hiram Revels. His story is a story that I don’t have time to talk about here, but I will assert that he was related to Native Americans in North Carolina who, at the point of Reconstruction after the U.S. Civil War, could not provide Hiram with the proper infrastructure to advance in American politics. Hiram became well known over a decade in which he became the face of Black politics. So, by 1906, the “7 Jewels” weren’t creating some revolutionary method for Black men to survive. They were part of an already established Black political system…a system that hid as much as it helped clarify.

We can’t dissolve or elide this conversation about Black elitism as we begin to understand the plight of mostly poor Black men in Ferguson and elsewhere. The proliferation of Black Greek life over the last century is a symbol of a major shift in American life toward the “haves” and “have nots” in Black America. Tyler Perry, in fact, has a television show with this very title. His show, which is featured on Black Entertainment Television (BET), includes one or two White characters. However, its premise is to depict how American Black communities are divided into the haves and have nots….into the wealthy and the poor…into the connected and disconnected. Many folks in Black Greek life call their “connections” a form of organization. I suggest that they are part of a storied history of indisputable self-segregation of Black peoples. (To help contextualize this frame of reference, please read much of the history about the debate between – in fact, the hatred between – Marcus Garvey and “light skinned” Black leaders like WEB DuBois and Thurgood Marshall.)

Indeed, Black collegiality and fraternity became the language of post Civil Rights America. Recently, Bill Cosby has faced an onslaught of accusations regarding his alleged role in the rape of several women since the 1970s. These new images of Cosby offset the wholesome American image that he created in his hit 1980s television program, the Cosby Show, in which he featured a family, led by a doctor and lawyer, which had major relationships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities. On many episodes, Cosby sported sweatshirts and t-shirts from institutions like Howard, Spellman, and Tuskegee. Meanwhile, many folks pondered why Bill Cosby never let his fictional children interact with or talk about the other, less privileged parts of New York outside his upper-class neighborhood in Brooklyn in the middle of the Crack epidemic and Reagan’s “War on Drugs.” (Here is the link to a great article on Cosby, race, and class…where a great book from 1992 – Enlightened Racism – is referenced.)

So as we ponder the nature of violence against the preciousness of life for which we write out hashtags such as #blacklivesmatter, we must not forget to ask “what’s the matter?” with these same lives. The cultural conditions of privileged Black lives may hide what would, in the “streets,” seem like injustice and immorality. There are dozens of stories – from the 1990s, 2000s, and now the 2010s – of rampant violence against Black men and women within the elite space of the university vis-à-vis Black Greek life (as evidenced in three links above). Perhaps folks feel like the tradition of the university, as an already privileged space, doesn’t allow them to question how violence and re-segregation occur in today’s university. But this conversation is vital.

I’m left with this sour question: isn’t it a bit ironic that most Black fraternity violence began to take place after the end of American segregationist policies?

Perhaps the Black Greek paddle is the university’s version of the police baton or 9mm. I can’t imagine what must be going through the head of an 18 year old African American kid at Cornell University today? He already feels like White people think he shouldn’t be there – heck, some Black folks probably think he doesn’t need to be there – and it is suggested that he can’t really succeed unless he partakes in fraternal rituals. In these rituals, his skin may be (and often is) exposed in his attempt to be accepted. Is there safety in this acceptance? Well, I’m sure there is some perception of safety. But skin doesn’t lie. Like on the plantation, the public value of abuse cannot be underestimated. Back then, society covered up the immorality of the abuse of Black men and women by referencing scripture and law. Today, I’m persuaded that violence among privileged Black youth in college is seen as more of an accessory. It is not. It’s systemic. It is here to stay. It speaks of deep seeded political and economic issues.

Nevertheless, brute acts against the Black body are worn as trophies.

So we must ask what the skin means in today’s conversation about systemic abuse, institutional racism, and the reality that perception is more critical than ever before. You know your racialized body is perceived in certain ways. The perception is that you can’t get out of those systemic racial perceptions unless some smaller community perceives you as loyal. Then, in being “made,” you hide particular marks and reveal others. All of them – the ones you want and the ones you don’t want – are part of that “bloody river” that we are still traveling across. They are part of all violence against Black peoples. May we obtain bravery to acknowledge this.

Word on the Street: Ferguson and UVA in our crosshairs


Lee Baker, professor at Duke University, describes the distinction between sociology and anthropology. He states that, in the early 20th century, anthropology was distinguished from sociology by an understanding that anthropologists study people and things that are “out of the way.” Sociology, he argues, studies things “in the way.”

Indeed, sociology must be praised for its ability to stand in the gap for peoples who are overtly oppressed and ostracized within the United States. However, although aloof, anthropology has been wise to maintain the importance of ensuring that stories of human tragedy and suffering throughout the world are parts of larger narratives of sociality that span human experience. Anthropologists study race, indigeneity, gender, and other universal human ideas across national lines and within a largely global and trans-human context. That is why, at the beginning of most introductory anthropology classes, you will probably see videos of some ape or gorilla along side stories of far away lands. Anthropology, by and large, is the stranging (“queering” is a popular term today) of most anything. Anthropologists make things strange so that, in that strangeness, we can begin new conversations about human realities.

That’s why I’m interested to hear how anthropologists respond to the current proliferation of events in Ferguson, MO and the strange ways that the ebbs and flows of violence (between police and black men, for example) dance with other major events in the early 21st century in the United States. Watching the news media in these last two weeks, for example, we have heard very little about the “war on terror.” In fact, in the midst of the tension in Ferguson, the U.S. Secretary of Defense left his office.

We also haven’t heard from alternative places of oppression. For example, we don’t see signs in the midst of the Ferguson riots from “Gays for Ferguson.” We don’t see rallies of Native Americans against the rage of police terror against Black men in Ferguson and in many other cities across the United States (although much of this violence mirrors what was happening to Native Americans up until the 1990s). We don’t see hospitals in America placing posters on their doors asking for there to be “Justice for Mike Brown”, even though practically every hospital argues that it is the site and source of “health” and “wellness” for its clientele. (Walgreens…is the “corner of happy and healthy” in Ferguson?)

Where is the unification between different oppressed peoples? Well, different types of oppression often have dissimilar access to “the system.” My friend texted me a great quote from a radio station in Southern California in the midst of the Ferguson Riots: “White rage is in the system. Black rage is in the streets.” This is excellent! But I would modify it a bit. Certain people are able to “rage” in the system. Other people are forced to rage in the streets. We can’t always base this location of rage on race or other normalized categories. For example, we know, post-Katrina, that certain Black peoples had access to certain resources and influence when other poor Black peoples became victims of chronic displacement.

Nevertheless, it seems like West Florissant isn’t the only street in America that is being defaced in protest. Lakota youth in the Dakotas and Lumbee youth in North Carolina are patrolling their community spaces with spray paint and guns. Protestors at the University of Virginia march down fraternity row to bring attention to rape.

And it is important to see how tentacles of “the system” reach into “the streets” during these moments. In Ferguson, police, missionaries, and humanitarians are face to face with the realities of the urban ghetto everyday. Deans at America’s universities attempt to preserve fraternity life while they assuage raped women after decades of silence. What we see in the streets of Ferguson – as evidenced by the decoration of local police and military as peacekeeping forces (see picture above) – is a conversation between the streets and the system. What we see in the streets in the University of Virginia – as evidenced by strange gestures toward the safety of female students – is a conversation between the streets and the system.

Battling against Molotov cocktails that are thrown from “agitators” that look for a place to express grievances. Defending the reputation of UVA against Rolling Stone articles that shed light on fraternity row and the legacy of oppression at UVA. The streets are alive and well.

We do need to save Black men from the terror of police in their neighborhoods. We do need to save vulnerable women from being raped in fraternities. However, I would argue that post-Reaganomics frameworks about the need to fix the streets dismiss the extreme value of the streets. The streets in Ferguson remain a space where White power, cloaked as militarism, is continuously identified (the amount of video footage of police brutality on the internet is astounding!). The streets of UVA remain a place where White power, cloaked as “liberal arts,” is questioned like never before.

So as we wonder why Ferguson was the wick that ignited an explosion of protests across the United States, perhaps we should consider what we (anthropologists) don’t understand about the importance of the streets around and between our academic homes. Sociologists get it a little better than we do sometimes. However, sociologists can profit from conversations with us. As they (sociologists) are more inclined to be “in the streets,” we (anthropologists) can help them become more conscious of the topography.

Beware the military industrial complex

“Beware the military industrial complex”…these were the words of President Eisenhower in one of his last televised speeches. Today, these words are truer than ever…and they are shown to be prophetic in the strangest of ways. Here was a post that I placed on Facebook during the height of the crisis in Ferguson, MO. My references to “Lumberton” and “State Trooper Covington” make sense to folks from the community I grew up in:


Just a thought before I get some rest. Today has been tough intellectually. How do we describe the chaos and turmoil that faces us in the next few weeks?

In particular, I’m concerned with the future of policing. Back in the 90s, police officers were, for the most part, an eclectic bunch. I remember the band that the Lumberton police used to have. They were diverse. State Trooper Covington (whose son, I believe, became a trooper) was known as a career trooper. Many police officers were like this.

In the last decade, this model has changed. We have a generation of young men (and women, possibly) who have been tasking away in the heat of the Middle East. They are crafted soldiers,meticulously groomed for global combat. These folks are steadily becoming the face of our domestic safety. They bring with them expertise and flexibility. They also bring with them great pain.

Many are hurt because they have lost a decade of their life in the midst of vipers and sand storms. They have seen death and mayhem. And they come to the US (their home) and they seek the fulfillment of that mission.

I’m afraid – seriously afraid – that their wrapping up of their careers in roles as domestic keepers of the peace is not easily separated from their roles as global soldiers. I don’t know if they have been/can be given the space to make a transition from soldier to peace officer.

This is pressing me, obviously, after what we have witnessed in Missouri. There are a multitude of homemade videos that show policemen who too easily use military tactics on US citizens. This makes some of us think that they are evil. I suggest that we may want to consider them under the influence of their captivity in global warfare.

Just a thought. It would be nice to hear them talk about it.

I’m writing some stuff about the current era of medicine. Like these soldiers turned cops, healthcare professionals often have a hard time making transitions into being healers. They have undergone so much pain (medical education isn’t pretty) that they enter medicine with indifference and animosity.

We must heal those people in charge of our healing – cops, doctors, pastors, etc – lest they continue to act inappropriately.
Yes, cops in St. Louis have murdered just like doctors error in their medical practice. Both situations are the condition of deep, historical pain. We must try to fix this.

Who’s saving your child’s life? (or, Why Native American mascots must end)


Dan Snyder, the current owner of the Washington “Redskins,” defends his team’s mascot in very bipolar ways. On one hand, he states that the Redskins mascot is just a symbol…doing no harm to anyone. Days later, he states, in very emotional rhetoric, that his dad spent months (if not years) seeking the right image among tribes in the Western United States to make the current image of the Redskin on his team’s helmet. Dan Snyder’s racism – yes, Dan Snyder is racist – is bipolar because it attempts to offer up the extremely emotional and the extremely indifferent (simultaneously!) all for the purposes of maintaining status quo.

The fact is, mascots dehumanize the people that they represent. In one way, mascots misrepresent the dead. They aren’t historically accurate.  In another way, mascots take living people out of our collective senses of reality. They make some living people obsolete and unimportant. 

The sports culture in America is on a mission to be victorious and maintain team pride (read: national pride) for the sake of a paying public. That’s why many folks in Washington DC and other large sports cities describe their areas as “Redskins Nation” and “Red Sox Nation” (for examples). These teams, in their aiming for victory, help perpetuate a psychological hunt. This isn’t lost on older Americans, many of which were born and raised in the early to mid-20th century when sports and war were simultaneous. A great book titled SHOWDOWN by Thomas Smith discusses how Americans clothed themselves in the veneer of Redskins (and Cowboy) fandom while the United States was at the brink of nuclear warfare with Russia and in the middle of the war over Black civil rights.

Recently, both Mike Ditka (famed Chicago Bears coach) and Ted Nugent (a formerly popular musician) have stated explicitly that Native American activists are in the way. While Nugent told Native Americans in the Great Plains that they should “go back where they came from,” Mike Ditka has stated with certainty that activists against the use of the “Redskins” mascot by the NFL are out of their mind. Both men make Native Americans out to be antagonists of a nationalistic, sports-centered ethos. In their minds, this is America, and it will always be America…and Native Americans ought not mess with that. 

Stephen Carter, a faculty member in the Law program at Yale University, wrote an article (link here) titled “Hail to the Lumbee” that suggested that we might consider changing the Washington DC football mascot name from “Redskins” to “Lumbee.”  I thought it was ironic that Stephen Carter is Black. I know the Ivy League system quite well. His role as a Black faculty member at Yale is surprising in its own right. Beyond that, however, I am surprised by his use of his role as a Yale faculty member to provide propaganda for a major news outlet without any interrogation of where and for whom he writes. I was surprised that he, a Black faculty member in the Ivy League, would be insensitive to the racial plight of Native American people.

Mr. Carter’s article showing up in the Chicago Tribune is possibly purposeful. Chicago is in the state of Illinois. The University of Illinois has made it no secret that they are protecting the “Chief Illiniwek” mascot for their mostly White alumni base. The Chicago Blackhawks organization has, overwhelmingly, ignored how its use of the Blackhawks logo helps celebrate a quite brutal history of Indian genocide and removal in the Chicago region. The Chicago Blackhawks fan base is multi racial….and you should not be surprised to see people from the nation of India wearing tshirts and other garb that have the word “Indian” and pictures of feathers on them. It shows how the colonial conquest of Columbus has been fulfilled. 

I think about the arguments that are made by pro-Redskins folks about why we should allow the continued use of the “Redskin” as a sports mascot. Their arguments, often, discuss how Native mascots are used to honor the “bravery” or “history” of Native American people in the United States. Mr. Carter, in his article in the Chicago Tribune, states that this should be considered as we continue to use Native American mascots.  In his description of why the Washington mascot should be changed to a Lumbee, he writes about how Lumbee people are brave, smart, savvy, determined, etc. He discusses their education and political determination. Mr. Carter goes as far as using the example of Sean Locklear, a Lumbee Indian football player. Sean Locklear, he suggests, played for the Washington Redskins for a number of years. So, in Mr. Carter’s opinion, we should take that as an affirmation that Sean Locklear (and his people) would endorse such a move to make Lumbee people a mascot. 

In attempting to comprehend the idiocy of Carter, Ditka, and Nugent, it is apparent that they see racial segregation and racism as systemic and systematic processes that only affect Black and White peoples in the contemporary world. They live in a faux-tolerant society that would never tolerate a football team that celebrates the bravery of Black slaves. (I can see it now, a bright green and red helmet with a black man emasculated under chains).  Americans can’t (or don’t) comprehend that the “Redskin” and every other Native American mascot is a token of American victory over the Native american body and mind. While the White pattern of thought is to say that Native American people were brave, we know that Native American men often posed with government photographers after months and years of accepting the conditions of war. They were handed medals, which were dual symbols. On one hand they symbolized “peace.” On the other hand, they were an inverted trophy, given from the victor to the loser in colonial battle. 

Indeed, what is forgotten in all the debates about the Redskins mascot is how we tend to glamorize the assassinated, the victimized, and the publicly shamed. We think that Black Americans shouldn’t riot like Malcom X. We think that Martin Luther King provided a better example of how the racially oppressed should act. With the CIA and and every other soul stealing spy agency on his back, Martin Luther King was depicted as a stoic martyr. Similarly, sports fans, when questioned about the use of the Redskin, state that he (the “Redskin”) represents the brave Indian…the one who was proud of his fight until the end.

In the meantime, little Black boys and little Indian boys don’t carry with them the same stoic looks. They are often angry and hostile, and their disruptions as living peoples is anything but acceptable within American society. They are often told that their “attitudes” and demeanors ought to be more respectful and pleasant to look at. 

Yet, what if that little boy is smart and able to make his way through medical school? (I’m keeping the gender theme going here because the Washington “Redskin” is male.) When working in DC two years ago, I tended to ask many of my colleagues (in a local hospital) about their appreciation of the Redskins. Many of my Black colleagues would easily put me off by stating that they were “part Indian.” My White colleagues would easily put me off by stating that “history” was “too big” to change. I asked them if their token Indianess or their incomprehension of history could make sense of a Native American doctor coming into a Washington DC hospital. “What would happen to them?” I would ask. “Could they be Native American and be a doctor?”

I said to one of my colleagues, “Try to understand what would happen if a Lumbee man was a doctor in the DC area and had a child patient ask them what they were. Consider what may happen if that Lumbee doctor said ‘Native American.’ Then the child said, ‘like the Indian man on the helmet.’ Then think about the way that this doctor would be perceived. We hope that the Lumbee doctor would break stereotypes. However, it seems more plausible that the child wouldn’t be able to comprehend a ‘real’ and ‘live’ Native American when all they know is Black and White fans at Redskins games dressing up in faux feathers and face paint on Sunday afternoons.”

This was my example…and it depended on my breaking the Native American doctor out of the feathers and stoic face…out of the death and disfigurement…and making him important within the context of treating a child in an emergency room situation. To exist as real people, Native Americans can’t continue to exist on a helmet or jersey. They can’t be stoic. They must be allowed to live in the here and now as fully animate and comprehendible human beings.

They may be saving your child’s life.